A CURIOUS VIEW: “MY COUSIN CARMELA,” BY JOSEPH SCIUTO

A CURIOUS VIEW: MY COUSIN CARMELA

Sometimes a treasure chest that has intermittently passed before your unsuspecting eyes throughout most of your adult life suddenly catches your attention and when you unlock the door and look inside you discover the hidden pieces of a puzzle that you have unknowingly been looking for your entire life.

About six years ago I started writing a blog titled “A Curious View.” It was in response to the death of my aunt Rena, who was the last surviving member of the fifteen children my grandparents’ had on my mother’s side of the family. Of the fifteen children, four were boys and eleven were girls, and of all those children, my uncles, aunts, and a plenitude of cousins there was virtually no one left to carry on the name of my maternal grandparents, ‘Caggiano.’

My very first memory was of me, at about three years old, sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen with my grandmother and my aunt Jeanette and being fed all the chocolate my little heart desired.

Both my parents worked and my grandmother and aunt looked after me until my mother arrived home. My grandparents’ house in the Bronx was very large and they converted the top floor into a two-bedroom apartment where my parents, two brothers and I lived.

Throughout the day, my grandmothers’ kitchen had a steady stream of visitors, aunts, uncles, friends who lived on the same block, friends from the days when they lived in Harlem, and while they sat there drinking coffee and helping themselves to the best homemade bread I have ever tasted, I listened to the stories they told about their families, unconditional love, grief at the loss of children, and the hardships they encountered when they first arrived in this country.

Many of their stories I still remembered quite vividly and together with the interactions I had throughout my life with my grandmother, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and many friends of the family I figured I had quite a significant amount of material to do an everlasting tribute to this amazing family and hopefully keep the “Caggiano,” name from going extinct… yet it wasn’t long before I realized that I had remembered a lot less than I ever imagined.

The first blog was about my grandmother and the second about my aunt Jeanette. They both were received warmly by family members and a few of my friends. The one surprise was the feedback from by my cousin Carmela Greco. My cousin, who I thought of more as an aunt than cousin, because of the nearly twenty-five-year difference in our ages. Carmela was one of the first grandchildren born to my aunt Mary, one of the older children, and my mother, who was one of the last to be hatched, and didn’t start having children until my cousin was nearly twenty years old.

My cousin liked what I wrote but she asked, “Why didn’t you include this person, or that person? Surely, you spend a long enough time in your grandmother’s kitchen to remember Mrs. Bruno who lived in the house next door and went to visit your grandmother and aunt all the time?”

I had to admit to myself that my cousin was right. Mrs. Bruno was there all the time but of all the people I mentioned in the blog about my grandmother and aunt I had somehow forgotten to mention her and she had a tendency to tell some really wacky stories. Not only that, but her husband Mr. Bruno would sit every night on the stoop with my grandfather and exchange stories while his dog, a lovely German Shepherd who was as laid back as any dog I have ever seen, would sit beside them.

I thanked my cousin for reminding me of Mrs. Bruno and promised that sometime in the next batch of stories I was planning to write I would bring her up. I kept my promise and wrote about her in a story about my aunt Angelina who died at the age of thirteen from an appendicitis many years before I was born but whose birthday and day of death were imprinted on my grandmother’s brain. My aunt Jeanette would always remind me the day before about the anniversary of her sister’s birth or death, and that I shouldn’t take my grandmother’s silence as a reflection on me.

My cousin Carmela was overjoyed that I wrote about my deceased thirteen-year-old aunt because she was fairly sure that many people had forgotten about her since it had been so many years since she passed away, and then she asked, “Why didn’t you mention your mother who almost died a couple of weeks later from an appendicitis but was miraculously healed after a visitation from Saint Joseph? Surely, you know the story and that’s the reason she named you Joseph after Saint Joseph.”

Of course I knew the story, and it should have been included. Both stories were always told in conjunction with one another. Maybe, I did drink one too many beers as a teenager and the damage to my brain was more substantial than I could have ever imagined.

My cousin really did enjoy the stories I wrote about the family and in a very real sense she became my biggest fan and her encyclopedia type memory allowed me to give a much fuller picture of the ‘Caggiano’ family than I ever could have hoped for.

During a short hiatus from my blog, “A Curious View,” my cousin wrote to me  and asked me if I had given up writing? I laughed and replied, “That I was simply taking a break so I could finish a novel I was writing.”

She said, “My God, I would love to read it. You need to send me a copy once it’s finished.”

I replied, “I certainly would but it probably wouldn’t be published for at least three months,” but before she could lodge a complaint about how long it was going to take I remarked, “I have six other novels which have already been published and I could send them to you if you like.”

“Yes, Yes,” She remarked and over the next couple of years she read all my novels and from what she told me she loved them, and not only had she read them all but she had given the books to one of her neighbors who simply loved my writing style.

The next to last novel I sent her was called, “The Ninth Sphere.” The title of the book was taken from Dante’s trilogy titled “The Divine Comedy.” Considered one of the great literary masterpieces ever written, the writer travels through his vision of hell/The Inferno, Purgatory/and Paradiso/Heaven.

It is when he enters the sphere of Heaven that the lovely Beatrice acts as his guide. When they enter Heaven’s final sphere, “The Ninth Sphere,” Beatrice leaves him and as he watches her and the other angels go to sleep inside the large petals of glistening roses the blessing of the Almighty is sprinkled down upon the sleeping children.

When he turns an all-encompassing light rises before him and it is inside this radiant, pure, and brilliant bubble of light that the Almighty welcomes Dante.

My novel, “The Ninth Sphere,” is the most personal novel I have ever written. It is an unbiased recollection of my life, including my many mistakes, my failure to live up to expectations, and how very lucky and fortunate I am to have been raised in a family whose love and support was unconditional and always available.

Needless to say, my cousin Carmela loved it and whereas I might not have mentioned every one of my relatives in the novel I have no doubt she understood that the point of the novel was the importance of family, and how our once merry army of relatives and friends had quickly diminished and that to remember them was the most important thing we could do.

Today is the first day in over 60 years that my cousin’s apartment in the Bronx, where she and her husband raised their two children, is empty.

She passed away after a relatively short illness, but I have no doubt as I write this that she is being welcomed by God into that radiant, pure, and brilliant bubble that Dante walked through. She is once again reunited with her husband who passed away nearly 45 years ago and by her sister, Grace, who was the only member of all our relatives to become a Catholic nun.

I will greatly miss her but I have a strong feeling that our story is far from finished and I could still hear her asking, “What? Are you through with writing?”

“No!”

“Well, then get to it.”

Love, Joe and Melissa.

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